Many of us attended a fireworks show this past weekend. This got me thinking about how doing something so exciting and “ordinary” as heading out as a family to see fireworks, at one point in our lives, was quite a to do.
With Asperger Syndrome, one can be either under- or over-sensitive to one’s senses. In the case of my son, it’s both, depending on the sense upon which we are focusing. In his case, he is under-sensitive in his mouth/oral senses. He started out as a thumb-sucker. As one myself, I didn’t realize that this can (please note “can” – I don’t want to encourage anyone to diagnosing every child who sucks his or her thumb as being on the spectrum) be one of the signs of an autistic child. Therefore, he mouths everything: (when he was younger) his clothes (you’ve seen children with the whole front of their shirt soaked with saliva); the arms of his eye glasses (they seriously look as if we don’t feed him); any strap (from a coat or book bag that was anywhere near his mouth); fingers (of course); toys (I’ve taken away many a Lego, although he was well above the recommended age for playing with them, because of something he’s got in his mouth that I was afraid would become a choking hazard); and, also when he was younger, other less acceptable things such as the rubber matting on the floor of his preschool room and playground.
There are many wonderful “toys” that can be found online or through a place like School Specialty, for students who have this need. One’s Occupational Therapist would be a helpful resource in finding the “just right” and “socially acceptable” chew toy to satiate this need for stimulation. I’ve even encouraged other parents to get the doctor to “write a prescription” for gum: the ultimate, socially acceptable “chew toy.” Unfortunately, my son also has orthodontia. We just keep reminding him and, with age, he has grown out of this need to put everything into his mouth, for the most part.
Interestingly enough, this oral under-sensitivity comes with a plethora of textures he will not eat, or even sit near (food). Bananas were off the list fairly early in his life. Yogurt. Anything too cold, like an ice pop. These things are not for him. He will eat apple sauce, but not jello. We just (literally) took note of what he would and would not tolerate. Now that he’s older, while he’s still a “white diet” (starch) guy, he is willing to try new things from time to time. OK, not broccoli. But if it can be coated in “red” (his favorite color – aka ketchup), we are usually good to go. Getting him to try new foods this way was a wonderful strategy we learned from the amazing therapists at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Regional Autism Center.
Now onto noises. He has always been over-sensitive in the hearing category. Not bionic mind you – he cannot hear what I just told someone I got him for his birthday from a room away. And if he’s hyper-focused on something, forget him “hearing” me talk to him. But in terms of fireworks, the first time we attended, he cried and we had to leave just as they were getting started. The next few years I sat with my hands over his ears and he did just fine. This year, which triggered my recollection, he didn’t need anything! I was very excited for this “growth” in his life.
But he’s still the kid who shouts out that “it’s too loud” during a pep rally or assembly, for whom we have had it written into his IEP to be told before the school holds a fire drill, or who needs to leave a basketball game due to the buzzer going off too many times. Jodi Picoult once wrote a fiction book about a character with autism that really captured, for me, why this is the case when an over-sensitivity is present. She had the main character of her book explain, imagine having all of your nerve endings on the outside of your body. What would your “perception” of noise, or light, be in that case? Everything would be too much! Like myself on a migraine day, with smells being too powerful, let alone being able to tolerate noise and light.
For us, my son is “mild.” We have learned to show respect for his over- and under-sensitivities. This was accomplished through listening, watching, and recording (so we didn’t forget). While I am so excited for his growth, I am also mindful of many other students who “act unexpectedly,” and thought it important to share the why’s behind a child physically and sensorily rejecting something as exciting as fireworks on the 4th of July.